Five questions: Chicago White Soxby Chris Jaffe
March 15, 2010
Last year's Sox, in one of their happier moments
Year-in, year-out, the AL Central might be the hardest division in baseball to predict. The White Sox and Twins seemingly always do a bit better than the conventional wisdom expects. The Indians typically underachieve. The Tigers do well when I expect them to fall back, and vice-versa. Thank God for the Royals. At least they always suck.
Anyhow, if it's normally a fool's errand to determine what will happen in the future, it's doubly foolish to figure out what will happen to a team like the Chicago White Sox. Fortunately for THT, I have enough fool in me for a room full of fools.
The Sox are a team in transition. They suffered through a disappointing 2009 season, posting their second losing season of the century. They've lost two of their offensive cornerstones - DH Jim Thome and former World Series MVP Jermaine Dye in the off-season. After this year, contracts end for the only two position players left from the 2005 world champions: first baseman Paul Konerko and catcher AJ Pierzynski.
That said, the White Sox aren't a team to lie fallow for a few years. GM Kenny Williams has shown a desire to balance winning now and winning down the road. It's a testament to his savvy that they've only had two losing seasons in his tenure despite lacking the resources of many other perennial winning franchises.
So let's get to it the annual Five Questions.
1. Do the White Sox have the best rotation in the league?
Let's start with the positive parts of the White Sox: their starting rotation. Perennial ace Mark Buehrle returns to lead the Sox. He's as consistent as they come: with eight quality seasons in his nine campaigns in the starting rotation. Perhaps more impressively, he's only missed two starts in that time (both in September 2007).
Sox ace Mark Buerhle
Joining him are kids John Danks and Gavin Floyd, both of whom experienced their second consecutive strong showing in 2009. Floyd's win-loss record was down last year - 11-11 after a 17-8 showing in 2008 - but his strikeout, walk, and home run rate all improved last year. His record obscures more than it reveals. (For that matter, the same might be said of his ERA. It got worse in 2009 because he allowed only six unearned runs, unlike the big 19 UER he had in 2008.)
That gives the Sox a great core, which the Sox round out from the injury-recovering Jake Peavy and Freddy Garcia. Peavy is a great talent -health permitting. Garcia has also been good each of the last two years, but he's only been able to muster 12 starts in that time. If everyone keeps their arms attached, the Sox will have a devastating rotation, but what are the odds of that?
Well, here's one little nugget I dug up: Since 2005 White Sox pitchers have had 16 different performances with at least 32 starts in the season. In that time, no other AL team has had more than 10 32-start achievements. That's rather impressive: the Sox are averaging more than three per year and no other squad is over two.
That tells us a few things. Most notably the Sox acquire good starting pitchers. It also tells us that the Sox do a good job taking care of their starters. The team doesn't have a magic wand and "POOF" - everyone suddenly gives them 32 solid starts. Just last year Bartolo Colon flopped for them. That said, a pitcher has as good a chance to stay healthy here as anywhere. I'd expect one of the two injury-recoverees to be healthy. If it's Peavy, they'll easily have the best rotation in the league.
2. Why would they sign Andruw Jones?
It's a damn good thing the Sox might have such a wonderful rotation, because their offense inspires no such feelings of joy. They suffered through a losing campaign in 2009 because of their offense, which ranked 12th in runs scored despite playing in a hitter's haven.
They've jettisoned several of their starting position players from last year, which makes sense under the circumstances. However, the most notable of the departed - Dye and Thome - were among two of four White Sox players to break 100 OPS+ last year. The departure of Thome is an especially big blow to their offense, as he was their OPS king last year.
Which brings us to the topic at hand. Of all the signings by the Chi Sox this off-season, perhaps the biggest (both in terms of name wattage and personal tonnage) was one-time wunderkid Andruw Jones. He'll step into Thome's vacated DH slot.
This strikes me as an interesting gamble for the Sox to take. I don't really like the odds of it, but Jones is an interesting guy to take a flyer on.
First the bad news: Jones has been terrible for a while now. Last year he hit .214 in limited playing time with the Rangers - and that was his most successful season since 2006. Last year, he had enough power to qualify as an offensive mediocrity, whereas he was one of the worst hitters in all baseball in 2008, and merely typically terrible in 2007. He's 33 this year, and as a general rule of thumb, a guy at that age who's been wretched two of the last three years isn't the guy you want on your team.
Aye, but there's a little more to Andruw Jones. He doesn't lack the talent: He's just blown his talent. He was good enough to crack an MLB starting lineup at age 20. By age 23, he was a Gold Glove-winning centerfielder All-Star who hit over .300 with 36 homers. He should've had 15 more good seasons in front of him, health permitting.
But he didn't take care of himself off the field, and quickly became a one-dimensional dinger-machine on the field. The gamble for the White Sox is simple: Can he reconnect with some of his once formidable talent to become a quality player? He'll never be what he promised to be, but he can hopefully do well enough to replace an aging Thome. If nothing else, Jones is coming to a park that's nice for home run hitters.
I don't like Jones' odds. He fell too far for me to think he'll be worth a fart. Last year's middling performance might be the ceiling for him.
If he does flail, the Sox are in trouble. Who DH's then? I suppose they could put Konerko or Carlos Quentin there, but that just shifts a hole. The main veteran bat on the bench is Mark Kotsay, who's hit .270 with minimal power during the last five years. They could put their highly touted young catcher Tyler Flowers in the DH, but even if he's as good as expected, he'll have to get up to speed first.
3. Who's in the outfield?
The team has completely redecorated its starting outfield, and like the DH, question marks exist at every position. In left, they have a man who has never played for the team. In center, a man who wasn't in Chicago last Opening Day. Their right fielder has been with the club for a couple of years, but has never played an inning in right for them.
The left fielder is Juan Pierre, who the Sox got at a discount from the Dodgers, who were willing to eat part of the salary in order to dump the rest of it. Pierre replaces Scott Podsednik, which is appropriate because they are such similar players. Both are power-free, singles hitters who can steal bases. Also, both performed especially well last year. Pierre should be a step down. It's not a matter of talent, just that Pierre's unlikely to have a second straight Indian Summer season.
In center, is Alex Rios. If Pierre was in the clouds last year, then Rios was in the sewers. He was a consistent performer in Toronto from 2006-08, hitting around .300 with tweener power. Last year, Toronto jettisoned him (and his sizable salary) after a slow start, and his performance in Chicago was pitiful. In 41 games, he batted .199/.229/.301. That's beyond dreadful.
The Sox need him to step it up, obviously. He ought to - just given how low he hit it's almost impossible he'd stay down that low. The real question of how high will he bounce back up. Right now it's a guessing game. I don't think he'll ever receive another All-Star selection, but he should be serviceable.
Last and most importantly, the Sox need Carlos Quentin to return to his offensive 2008 form while adjusting to right field at The Cell. After a breakthrough 2008 season which saw him finish fifth in MVP voting, he suffered through an injury-plagued 2009 as foot problems sapped his ability to produce at the plate. He's the best bet for a considerable offensive improvement on the team. Not only should he be healed, but he's just now entering his prime, as this will be his age-27 season.
The Sox need Quentin to produce. With Dye and Thome gone, Konerko and Pierzynski likely to decline, and varying degrees of uncertainty in the rest of the outfield, another disappointing campaign from Quentin could leave the entire offense in such dire straits that even their vaunted rotation can't save them.
4. What does the future hold for Gordon Beckham?
Good things - and lots of them. His performance with the Sox last year showed that the team was right to draft him with their No. 1 pick in 2008, and then move him out of the minors after only 59 games. The kid looks like the real deal and should have a terrific future in front of him.
That's in the long run, in the short term, there might be a bump in the road. Even really talented players rarely have a perfectly smooth path toward the All-Star Game. Besides, Beckham will be learning his third position in as many years in 2010. The Sox drafted him as a shortstop, shifted him to third last year and now will move him to second, in order to make room for the newly acquired Mark Teahan. That might cause a little trouble in 2010, but it's nothing Beckham can't get over.
For a clearer picture what's in store for him, I did a little digging for comps. Last year, the 22-year-old Beckham posted a 107 OPS+. So, I went to Baseball-Reference.com's excellent Play Index and did a search for seasons by: 1) 22-year-olds since 1900, who 2) played an infield defensive position (short, third, or second), 3) posted an OPS+ between 97 and 117, and 4) either qualified for a batting title or had 400 PA.
Fifty-three names popped up. Two were in 2009 (Beckham himself and Everth Cabrera) - leaving the remaining 51 to serve as forecasting tools for Beckham. (I know B-ref has easily available sim scores, but I don't really trust them because of the differences of era and park. Besides, I think it matters to account for defensive position.) I then dug into their careers to get an idea what the short- and long-term future could be for him (they're all listed in references and resources at the end of this column if your curious).
Let's look at the long-term results first. These look fantastic for Beckham. Of the 51 players, eight are currently in Cooperstown: Joe Sewell, Joe Tinker, Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Robin Yount, Lou Boudreau, Tony Lazzeri, and Billy Herman.
Several others could, will, or ought to be enshrined, ranging from Pete Rose to Roberto Alomar to Derek Jeter.
There's scarcely a bum on the list. Of the 41 retired players, only three played fewer than 1,000 games in their career: Sean Burroughs (he hasn't played in four years? I feel old), Johnny Hodapp, and Erve Beck. Meanwhile, 30 played at least 1,500 games, 11 of whom played in more than 2,000. They averaged 1,751 games played. Games played are a rough tool, but they indicate clearly how long someone remains effective.
That's nice, but what matters for the Sox in 2010 is the short term, and here the results are a bit less rosy. Even though these guys were great at age 22 and had long, productive careers, they mostly took a step back at age 23. That isn't too surprising, but worth noting. By Batting Wins (which has the added bonus over OPS+ of also accounting for playing time), only 20 of the 51 got better. In all, they went from 266.5 collective batting wins to 202.3. Oh, added bonus: of Beckham's 51 comps, only four peaked at age 22, according to Batting Wins.
I expect Beckham to have a terrific career, but 2010 might be one step back before two steps forward.
[Insert your own "bend it like Beckham" joke here]
This is another reason why I think Quentin is so key for the Sox this year. They had seven regulars post an OPS+ of 90 or higher on last year's lousy offensive squad. Three are gone. Two are both on the wrong side of 30 and coming off years when they improved their hitting (which is to say especially unlikely to keep up last year's production). Beckham, the sixth, may endure growing pains. I don't trust Andruw Jones, leaving Quentin as their big force.
5. Can the Sox win the division in 2010?
So far, I've presented a mixed approach. I like their starting pitching, but am skeptical of their offense. The White Sox have one special advantage, though: They play in the AL Central.
The Royals have been so bad for so long they can be discounted on general principles. Last year the Indians went through their biggest give-away of possessions Ohio had seen since the Treaty of Greenville. The Twins just lost Joe Nathan. The Tigers are hardly a sure thing.
I can see arguments for the Sox, Tigers, or Twins taking it. Then again, I can also see arguments for all five teams finishing with a losing record. I expect one team will pull off a quality season, though.
For the White Sox, I think it's simple: If Peavy and Quentin both produce, Chicago will win the division easily. If neither does, the team is screwed. If one does, it'll be a fight for the flag.
Key Sock Carlos Quentin
References and Resources
If you're curious, here are the 51 comps for Beckham (ordered from highest to lowest OPS+ at age 22): Hank Blalock, Eric Chavez, Hanley Ramirez, Joe Sewell, Chris Speier, Bobby Doerr, Harlond Clift, Alan Trammell, Lou Boudreau, Gregg Jeffries, Ron Hansen, Robin Yount, Dan Driessen, Ron Hunt, Red Smith, Troy Tulowitzki, Carney Lansford, Tony Lazzeri, Donie Bush, Joe Tinker, Lou Whitaker, Marty McManus, - (the next three guys had an OPS+ of exactly 107, just like Beckham) - Ryan Zimmerman, Eddie Yost, Joe Cronin, Robinson Cano, Sean Burroughs, Carlos Baerga, Travis Fryman, Billy Herman, Milt Stock, Tony Cuccinello, Bill Bradley, Johnny Hodapp, Dick Bartell, Aurelio Rodriquez, Erve Beck, Omar Infante, Derek Jeter, Willie Randolph, Pete Rose, Harvey Kuenn, Cecil Travis, Dick McAuliffe, Troy Glaus, Roberto Alomar, Bill Coughlin, Rafael Furcal, Steve Sax, Buddy Meyer, and Bill Sweeney.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.